By Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
Neil Young thinks the sound quality of most modern devices and services is garbage, and he’s not going to take it anymore. Instead, he’s searching for a sound of gold, and he’s calling it Pono, a Hawaiian word that means “righteous.”
One Device for True Pono Sound
Evolver.fm has learned new details about this promising service, which is expected to launch at some point this year, including which devices it will work with — and how its sound quality will differ depending on which one you use.
The main thing to know here is that only one device will be capable of playing Pono files at their maximum, Neil Young-approved sound quality. You guessed it — this is the Pono player, the yellow thing Neil flashed around on Letterman last year, which, to this former MP3 player reviewer, recalls similarly-triangular iRiver models of the past.
Yes, if you want a Pono file to play properly, you’ll need to play it on the Pono device — no computers, iPhones, Androids, or high-end D/A converters for you (more on that last one later).
However, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Pono files will play on any digital audio device, just at a lower sound quality (i.e. something like what most of us listen to today). In other words, you should be able to load the songs up on your iPhone — they will just lack the amped up sound that made you go with Pono in the first place.
In that sense, Neil Young and his Pono team have figured out how to do something Spotify did for subscription music, but to sound quality: To make it “freemium.” You might be able to “borrow” a Pono file from a “friend” and play it on whatever you want — but in order to get the top-notch sound quality, you’ll need to play it on a Pono, from what we hear, and you’ll need to be the person who purchased it.
HD Audio When Possible, Enhanced Lossless for Everything Else
If Pono succeeds, it’ll be on the strength of its appeal as an artisanal, high-quality alternative to the mainstream — sort of like sparsely appointed bicycles, 180-gram vinyl, or local organic kale. As with all of that stuff, the question of “sourcing” is crucial. From whence will this artisanal music be sourced?
We have an answer, and it’s essentially both of the sources we thought it might be: high-definition music like the ones available on HD Tracks, DVD-A, or SACD, as well as regular old 16-bit/44.1 kHz — a.k.a. CD-quality — files. This bifurcated approach will give Pono the ability to sell the high-resolution version when available (the three to five thousand albums that have been digitized at a high resolution), but still offer “better than CD-quality sound” for the rest of recorded music.
Whether its source is “lossless” (in the case of most of the music that will be available on Pono) or “better than lossless” for the thousands of albums that have already been re-encoded at higher resolutions, the music will be run through a special process developed by Pono’s partner Meridian.
As mentioned, in order to hear the Pono-enhanced version, regardless of which source it came from, you’ll need to stick with the Pono player, which brings us to…
The Audiophile’s Conundrum
The fact that Pono will sell its own hardware means its customers will be able to play files purchased from the Pono music store, even if no other companies license Pono for integration (we’d like to see it in a nice Android phone).
However, this has a big downside for people who are audiophiles in the true sense of the word. Much of the internet is wrong about the meaning of this word. “Audiophile” doesn’t mean that you like music, or even that you like good sound. It means you’re obsessed to the point that some would call madness about everything from the number of oxygen atoms in your cables to the “cleanliness” of your power source, whereas most people just stick a plug into the wall and move on. It means you might spend ten grand on a pair of speakers, or 100 grand, and if you had a million to spare, you’d probably find a way to spend that on your stereo too.
These are not people who are going to buy a tiny, $100-$250 device (we assume) portable device and connect it to their obscenely expensive audio rigs. Unless the Pono player has a digital output, which we do not believe it to have, these audiophiles are going to stick with other formats that let them use their own D/A converter. Yes, audiophiles even buy specific hardware for turning 1s and 0s back into sound — something most of us trust whatever chip came with our laptop or phone. But if they go with Pono, they’ll have to use the D/A converter inside of it, instead.
So, Can ‘Pono by Neil’ Do for Stores and Players What ‘Beats by Dre’ Did for Headphones?
Two types of people will not be interested in Pono: high-end audiophiles with their own D/A converters, and people who just want some music they like to come out of their mediocre speakers or headphones, ideally for free.
As such, this leaves one market for Pono, and nobody knows how big it is: People who care about sound quality enough to buy a new player (that’s not even also a phone!) and enough to purchase most of their music from the Pono store, rather than going with a cloud music service – but not enough to mortgage their houses in order to buy some new speakers.
One company has found something like that market so far: Beats Electronics, which convinced people to invest in high-quality-(ish) headphones based on distinctive styling, a whole lot of bass, and the power of celebrity, in that case, Dr. Dre. (Beck likes Pono, which is a start).
If the semi-audiophiles Pono should be targeting later this year are as proud of flashing around their Pono players as a signal to those around them that they appreciate the finer things in life, and have an epicurean taste in sound quality that can only be satisfied through artisanal sourcing — sort of the way people proudly wear their Beats headphones — Neil Young’s attempt to create a new music ecosystem that prizes sound quality will stand a chance, even if it means convincing people to put down their phones for a second.